Ari Gersen’s Longfellow Books in Portland is at the end of a long supply chain that has become rusty and kinked, leaving him worried about what the rest of the year and the key holiday season have in store for him and his business.
“December is just a big question mark right now,” Gersen said, because he doesn’t know for sure which books he will get and when.
The books Gersen sells are often printed overseas, which can lead to delays getting into overcrowded ports. Then the books are handed over to truckers to take to warehouses, but a shortage of truck drivers means more backups. Finally, the warehouses are short-staffed, creating delays in getting the books to the stores, such as Gersen’s shop in Monument Square.
All that comes on top of the 2020 holiday season that Gersen said “was a total blur,” with his store shifting from curbside pickup to in-person shopping just a month or so before the holiday crunch set in.
Retailers might hope this year becomes a “total blur” as well. Problems with getting products from manufacturers to retailers cropped up periodically throughout the year but are reaching a crescendo entering into the critical holiday sales period. The problems are, in some cases, caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and in other cases just exacerbated by the virus, from clogged ports to a shortage of truckers and a labor shortage that is leaving warehouses short-staffed.
Some retailers, including Gersen, are warning customers that if they don’t shop early, they might miss out on some of the gifts they want to hand out this year. He said he used to accept orders for books t0 be shipped to a buyer’s home up until Dec. 20, confident the order could be turned around in just a few days and arrive in time to be wrapped and put under the tree.
But this year, his deadline is two weeks earlier, and Gersen is telling customers to come in and start to make their selections soon instead of waiting until the traditional post-Thanksgiving shopping push.
“It’s not like we’re going to flip the store to Christmas tomorrow, but they should order now,” he said.
‘IF YOU SEE IT, BUY IT’
The worries retailers feel about having enough products to fill store shelves “speaks to how fragile the supply chain is,” said Curtis Picard, president and chief operating officer of the Retail Association of Maine.
Picard said there are kinks, stress points and breaks all along the chain that moves products from manufacturers to retailers and customers.
“It’s called a chain for a reason,” he said, explaining that disruptions anywhere on the line – from backed-up ports, slow ground transportation systems and warehouses and retailers dealing with labor shortages – could lead to some empty shelves this holiday season.
Retailers are encouraging customers to start scratching items off their lists earlier, as soon or even before the Halloween decorations are put back in storage.
“I hate to quote Marden’s, but if you see it, buy it,” Picard said, referring to the Maine-based bargain warehouse chain.
Picard’s advice is likely to apply until mid-2022, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation.
Gold said demand for manufacturing components – plastic, glass and microchips chief among them – has been rising as manufacturers emerge from the pandemic and try to ramp up production.
And that has also translated into a lack of containers to ship those products in, little space on ships, crowded ports and a lack of drivers to haul goods on the roads, he said.
“It’s impacting everything across the board,” Gold said.
Some manufacturers and retailers responded by pushing orders ahead a few months earlier this summer, he said, but “to be honest, that created more congestion because everybody did it.”
Gold said it would be wrong to sugarcoat the problems or suggest that retailers are hyping them up to jumpstart the holiday season.
“At every stage of the supply chain, there’s an issue,” he said. “The entire system is stressed to capacity right now.”
Maine retailers, like their counterparts across the country, are trying to figure out how to avert a crisis of empty shelves greeting shoppers over the next two months.
Topher Mallory, chief executive of Maine-based clothier Mexicali Blues, said the company experienced problems getting merchandise to its five stores last year and decided it was a hindrance they were likely to encounter again.
“Pretty early on, we said, ‘I don’t think this (issue) is going anywhere for a while,’” Mallory said.
Normally, the company would firm up its orders for the holidays in the summer, four or five months before shopping for the holiday season peaks. But this year, Mallory said, the orders went out while the stores were still ringing up 2020 sales.
Because of that, Mallory said he feels confident that Mexicali Blues will have enough merchandise to carry it through the holiday season, although he cautions that customers who buy online from the company should allow plenty of time for the items to be shipped. He said the store used the U.S. Postal Service to ship much of its merchandise last year, but delays led it to shift to UPS this year.
Still, Mallory said he’s resisting joining those encouraging shoppers to start on their holiday lists way ahead of time. He said it’s not wise to induce panic-buying by customers who are convinced they won’t be able to find what they want if they wait until December.
“Hoarding things and buying just to buy things is not something I would promote,” he said. “All you read is buy, buy, buy and that’s never been my mantra.”
A few blocks away at Treehouse Toys, Rania Levine said she’s worried about customers who want a specific item that might be in short supply. Levine, the manager and buyer for the store, said she could normally order those items and get them in before the holidays, but not this year.
Levine said her vendors have stopped providing information on delivery times, and Ravensburger, a German manufacturer of jigsaw puzzles and games, just canceled a bunch of orders that retailers including Treehouse Toys had put in.
Levine said the store is still pretty well-stocked because she followed manufacturers’ suggestions that orders be placed in June, a couple of months ahead of normal.
“It’s been a bit of a scramble,” she said. “It’s a weird new territory, but that’s in line with the last year and a half.”
HANDS AND MERCHANDISE
Lilly Mullin, president of Springer’s Jewelers, said she joined those retailers who put their own buying plans into high gear early this year because they worried about the strength and adaptability of the supply chain.
She said Springer’s and other jewelers saw the impact of the pandemic in 2020 when Italy – where many jewelry designers are based – was hard-hit. Earlier this year, they saw it again when the virus spread through India, the center of the diamond-cutting trade, and there have been ongoing issues with China, where many pearls originate.
“We saw it coming,” Mullin said, “so we started this nine months ago.”
Mullin said her strategy was simple: order early and often.
“We have overordered in everything,” she said, not wanting customers to be disappointed by a skimpy selection.
The company also dealt more directly with the original suppliers than in the past, leading to more solid business relationships.
“These were very small, localized businesses,” she said, “so it brought it down to the human level for us – these were small businesses just like us.”
John Reny said his family’s chain of Maine department stores also typically deals with vendors that are small businesses, but that doesn’t mean supply chain problems haven’t cropped up for Renys.
For instance, a Maine-based jam company couldn’t fulfill its normal order because the global glass shortage meant it couldn’t get enough jars, he said.
“The stories you hear are just unbelievable,” said Reny, president of the company.
Reny said he told his buyers to be nimble, and if a supplier couldn’t assure them they would get the products delivered in time, they should look elsewhere.
“I don’t want Christmas stuff on Dec. 12,” he said, since items arriving that late might go unsold and end up as January discount items.
Reny said his company’s biggest problem has been the worker shortage in Maine. The company eliminated its evening hours during the height of the pandemic, he said, and doesn’t have enough staff to reinstitute them, even though they are paying $15 an hour to start.
“You need hands – lots and lots of hands – to get it out of the warehouse and to the stores,” he said.
But boiled down, the key this holiday season is simple, Reny said.
“The people who have the merchandise will do well,” he said.